June 22 2020

Sit, stand or take a knee: Symbolic acts and anti-racism

Rima Saini, MDX Sociology lecturer, discusses the political history and wide-reaching symbolism of ‘taking a knee’ and its current relationship with genuine anti-racist progress.

When Colin Kaepernick chose to take a knee instead of sit during the national anthem of a San Francisco 49ers game in August 2016, he made the bold but controversial decision to clearly and unequivocally communicate his opposition to police brutality and anti-Blackness in front of the country, and eventually the world.

Standing during the national anthem is widely held as a symbol of respect for country and flag (a rule of conduct institutionalising patriotic acts but not necessarily enshrined in law), but there is a glaring hypocrisy to this in the US given the long history of disenfranchisement and criminalisation of marginalised populations.

Little did Kaepernick know that the police themselves – the police who many went on to virulently defend after his act – would also be kneeling nearly four years later alongside others in widespread global protest movements following the murder of George Floyd and countless other Black citizens at the hands of US police.

The history of ‘take a knee’

Martin Luther King Jr and fellow civil rights activists famously kneeled during marches in the 1960s as a form of prayer alongside non-violent resistance. Most notably in 1965, when protestors were arrested during a voter registration drive for African Americans in Dallas County, Alabama.

Along with bowing and prostration, kneeling plays a key a role in all religious traditions as an act of reverence and submission during worship. Some have likened Kaepernick’s kneeling to an evangelical act, tapping into the Christian roots of conservative and liberal America alike. The dignity inherent in this act by virtue of its sheer simplicity and its historical, spiritual connotations itself was at sharp contrast with the vitriol he received from President Trump who, still now, deems kneeling unacceptable and inherently, although arguably, anti-American.

There are written and pictorial records of slaves kneeling preceding the 20th century. A kneeling, Black male slave with his hands in chains was the defining symbol of the British abolitionist movement (Savage 1997; Nelson 2004), making its way, not unproblematically, to personal ornaments, artefacts, medallions and other pieces of propaganda purchased by anti-slavery proponents in the establishment.

Anti-racist symbolism and ‘performative wokeness’

‘Taking a knee’ has a complex recent political history. Multiple US policeman knelt on George Floyd’s neck, UK anti-racist protestors kneeled on the neck of the statue of slave trader and Tory MP Edward Colston in Bristol earlier this month (June 2020), and policeman across Europe and the US have been filmed kneeling on Black Lives Matter protestors.

One political act can thus encapsulate a world of dynamic meaning. Nonetheless, the simplicity of such acts encompasses both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness, particularly with the increasing and largely superficial institutional capture of ‘viral’ social and political movements by profit-making companies and brands.

Colin Kaepernick kneeled during a patriotic act in the face of hypocrisy between hollow nationalism and the lived reality of marginalised Americans. However, many argue that the appropriation of kneeling policeman and armed guards is the ultimate hypocrisy. Whereas it has been framed as a symbol of hope and humility, others have argued that appropriation of the symbolic act is tantamount to ideological and political pacification, and does little to communicate a genuine commitment to overturning structural discrimination within the police, perhaps giving the impression that the sharing of the act itself was the initial aim.

Alongside media blackouts of luxury brand firms, stylised shots of celebrities with ‘Black Lives Matter’ placards, social media challenges where company owners are tasked with quantifying the distribution of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) staff in their firms, and cringeworthy recorded videos of celebrities declaring ‘I take responsibility’, where and how can we demarcate genuine solidarity and political identity formation from capitalist performativity?

Dilution through appropriation of a symbolic act rids of it of its status as call to arms. It therefore matters who is doing it, why and where and indeed, depending on one’s own positionality, other acts can prove far more fruitful, such as a relatively socioeconomically privileged individual donating money or time or other resources to key causes.

Political progress beyond ‘taking a knee’

‘Taking a knee’ should communicate an individual’s political commitment to centre, if they have not been doing so far, Blackness. The accusations levied at Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner have been ones of empty virtue signalling. The shadow political elite have been accused of this not only in faux-solidaristic responses to the protests but in their reactionary responses to the elusive BAME coronavirus safeguarding plan, post-public outcry. Members of the current UK cabinet, like Dominic Raab, are at least far more clear cut about their misapprehension and ignorance about the meaning of the act.

With the wholesale silencing of Black voices and lived experiences in academia, politics, the media, and so on, a physical rather than a speech act can prove subversively powerful. However, now that ‘take a knee’ has entered the lexicon, it perhaps better communicates the ideological as well as the action-based implications of anti-racist solidarity.

When Black activists and scholars say ‘take a knee’, they mean, somewhat ironically, ‘take a stand’ in educating yourself in how you can challenge White supremacy and claim allyship. The educative conversations and political discourse around the act, therefore, are incredibly important.

The sharing of resources and causes has gone some way to communicating the sheer level of, often ‘behind the scenes’, anti-racist work that has been underway for years. It also provides a valuable insight into the lack of understanding and engagement from now ‘woke’, but hopefully, eventually better educated, individuals in positions of power.

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